Audience: “A Happy End,” a sobering lesson we need to learn

The cast of “A Happy End,” playing through Sept. 16 at Buntport Theater: Top, from left: Mary Cates, James O’Hagan-Murphy. Bottom: Zuzana Stivinova, Kevin Hart, Evan Duggan, Heather Taylor. Photo by Michael Ensminger

 

By John Moore
Sept. 12, 2012

Talkbacks following performances of Iddo Netanyahu’s family drama “A Happy End” have brought spirited response from audience members like Ralph Stern of Denver, to whom the sobering message of play is clear:

“I think it’s important for this play to be presented over and over and over again,” Stern said, “because it’s a lesson that we as Americans, as Jewish Americans, and non-Jewish Americans … we need to learn.”

“A Happy End,” which plays at Buntport Theater through Sept. 16, is the story of a Jewish German couple facing the decision whether to leave Germany in 1932 amid the imminent rise of the Nazi Party. Despite foreboding signs, they can’t know that to stay would almost certainly be to their eventual demise.

“A Happy End” actor Zuzana Stivinova and audience member Ralph Stern. Photo by John Moore.

“This play was the story of my family, so it is a real story for me,” said Stern, whose family arrived in this U.S. in December 1938 — six years after the play is set.

“I went back to Germany in 2005,” Stern added. “It was the first time I had gone back in 68 years. I had to wait that long because if I had walked into Germany earlier and seen a person old enough to have been a Nazi, I would want to walk up to them, grab him by the lapel, shake his head and say, “And what were you doing, you son of a bitch?”

Stern said the play is important primarily because it addresses a question that has lingered and even grown with time and distance. “People don’t understand why more Jews didn’t leave Berlin,” Stern said. “What they don’t understand is the Jews that were living there just could not believe that this was happening to them in this country.”

Much of the talkback conversation following the Sept. 9 performance centered on the natural human tendency to live in blissful ignorance of warning signs of impending change. Playwright Iddo Netanyahu addressed that question himself in this interview.

One audience member added: “Being Jewish, I always wondered what it was in the psychology of people that they couldn’t perceive the danger realistically, or they could deny it. There were so many Jews in Europe who did leave, and there were a lot of people who couldn’t believe it was happening.”

Here are more excerpts from the Sept. 9 talkback conversation, led by myself and lead actress Zuzana Stivinova, a Czechoslovakian now living in New York:

John Moore: Have you ever experienced the “wonderful chaos” the play describes in our present-day world?

Stivinova: I was lucky. I was born in Czechoslovakia during the totalitarian regime, so my parents had to make some touch decisions. But after the Velvet Revolution, thanks to Vaclav Havel and some other very brave people, we are in a free country. So my husband and I can decide to leave, and we can always come back, which is amazing.

Audience member: I think one of the major underpinnings here is the whole concept of choice. That’s something we as human beings hold onto for dear life. It’s a place that we have power. So even if there might be two not very good choices, we still like to know that we are standing strongly in that place of making a choice.

Director Ami Dayan: The playwright placed the story back (in 1932), but he is writing about now. He’s not interested very much in spelling out what the dangers are now, because he wants the play to speak for itself. But in these talkbacks, a lot of people have spoken about gay marriage, civil rights and other issues going on in this country and around the world. But the play talks about morality on an interpersonal level, and how we perceive reality in our own marriages as well. The playwright opens it up to the audience to take it to their own lives, wherever they may be.

Actor James O’Hagan-Murphy (he plays Dieter): There are plenty of us today who may fear the extreme wings of any political party, whether it be the far left, or Tea Partiers. Right now you might say, “Oh, they’re extreme — don’t worry about it. Yes, they’ve got a couple of senators in there, but it’s not a big deal.” That’s like saying, “Well there are only a couple of Nazi Chancellors right now. It’s not a big deal.” Where is that line?

John Moore: And as the play makes clear, it wasn’t like the Nazis suddenly became the most powerful party in Germany. They came into power because they built coalitions. Very dangerous coalitions.

Ralph Stern: I think Iddo wrote it very much as an Israeli Jew, and what Iddo is saying to the Israeli is the necessity to realize that when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says, “I am going to destroy you” — he means it. And when the new president of Egypt (Mohamed Morsi) refuses to come to a meeting in Israel, there’s a statement that’s being made,  and we had better learn to listen to those statements.”

Additional comment from retired Denver theater producer Henry Lowenstein:
“ ‘A Happy End” tells the story of a Jewish physicist and his family as they vacillate in the face of the coming Nazi threat. Should they leave everything behind, or might it all be a passing phase that will soon blow over?

“I was 7 years old in Berlin in 1932 when I heard the very same discussions as many family friends decided to leave Germany. It became my quick lesson in survival and the end of being a child. My mother saw the coming danger, whereas my father, who had been highly decorated for his service as an Army doctor during all four years of World War I, would not believe that his beloved Germany could allow Hitler to rule for any length of time.

“Iddo Netanyahu’s play brilliantly catches the conflicting emotions of the time. Ami Dayan’s direction is eerily reminiscent of Erwin Piscator’s 1920s epic-drama style, and the cast is terrific.”

More on Zuzana Stivinova:
The talkback also was an opportunity for audiences to get to know Stivinova, who is married to a microbiologist and living in New York, where they are raising two boys.

Stivinova played a leading role in former Czech president Vaclav Havel’s final play, “Leaving,” presented at the Czech national theater, and was directed by Milos Forman (director of the films “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Amadeus” and “Hair”) in a jazz opera there called “A Walk Worthwhile.”

Havel  died last year, and “I still haven’t really recovered, because I wasn’t in Prague when it happened,” Stivinova said. But I still have him inside.”

As is typical in European countries, many actors  work in repertory theaters where they perform in, say, six plays for five years or more. “This was the first time I was totally focused on one piece,” Stivinova said of “Leaving.” “Vaclav was there almost every day. He told us many funny stories. He was quoting from “King Lear” and “The Cherry Orchard” and his own plays, because somehow he felt it would be his last play.

“Working with him was amazing. I think I saw the happiest Vaclav Havel because he had been very worried whether people would understand him. But at the first preview,  people were laughing. We went outside after to have one drink, and I still remember his face. In that moment, he was no longer a politician. He was no longer a president. He was back to being a playwright. He was almost like a small boy, he was so happy.”

As for Forman, “he allowed himself to be sentimental in his older age,” Stivinova said.  “The Jazz Opera” is such a funny opera. We were working on it for over six  months, and it was such fun. He he has double twins: He has small twins, and big twins — with different women, which is rare. But his older sons were there working with him, and so he felt protected. He was very tough, but he is always protecting actors. He lives in Connecticut mostly, but he is always preparing something.”

Forman and others of his generation were like many of immigrants who came to America: They didn’t have a return ticket. “They only had a way to get there,” Stivinova. People like (Roman) Polanski and Milos Forman, they didn’t have any relatives. And they couldn’t go back. So they had to survive. And they had to make it to survive.”

That reminded Stern of a famous Hebrew expression. “Going back to the 1940s, when the Israelis were first asked, ‘How could you be such a powerful fighting force? You are so outnumbered.” Their response was always: “No alternative.”

“That is a tremendous boost to make you achieve what you want to achieve, because there is no alternative.”

Contact John Moore at 303-953-9907 or moore433@comcast.net

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“A Happy End”

  • Sept. 1-16 (previews Aug. 30-31)
  • At Buntport Theater, 717 Lipan St., Denver.
  • 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays.
  • Tickets: $25 ($18 Aug. 30-31); seniors and students $15.
  • 720-289-6451 or ahappyend.com

Iddo Netanyahu: Is there “A Happy End” for our troubled world?

 

Kevin Hart plays an acclaimed Jewish physicist who can’t see the writing on the wall in 1932 Berlin. Photo by John Moore
 

By John Moore

  • When tropical storm Isaac promised to a score a direct hit on Haiti last week, thousands of earthquake victims chose to ride it out in exposed, shanty tents. At least eight people have died.
  • It turns out the Aurora theater gunman made threats months before the July massacre that went unaddressed.
  • When Adolf Hitler became German dictator in 1934, it did not spark an immediate exodus of Jews.

That’s the flawed goodness of human nature, says Iddo Netanyahu. We ignore warning signs — often to our own peril.

“If people tell us there might be some impending disaster, our natural tendency is not to believe it,” said Netanyahu, a doctor, historian, soldier, playwright … and, yes, brother of Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Playwright Iddo Netanyahu is in Denver to debut the U.S. premiere of his new play, “A Happy End.” Photo by John Moore

He’s in Denver to stage the U.S. premiere of his ironically titled new play “A Happy End,” the story of a Jewish German couple facing the decision whether to leave Germany in 1932 amid the imminent rise of the Nazi Party. The mother of Netanyahu’s wife did. The minute Hitler took power, Jewish children were no longer allowed to go to school in Germany, so her family left for Switzerland.

But virtually no one else did. And a dozen years layer, the Nazis were responsible for 6 million deaths.

“The fact is that even up to 1939 — we’re talking six years after Hitler was elected — only 50 percent of the Jews decided to leave Germany,” Netanyahu said. “They were deluded. They were in love with their lives. They were in love with German society. Remember, this was the first country that had given the Jews full rights. And they could not bear to think, after hundreds of years there, that this country would want not only to expel them, but to liquidate them.”

“A Happy End” might be set 80 years ago, but Netanyahu had no interest in writing a historical play. “I think any playwright’s interest, including Shakespeare, is in his own times,” he said. So it may be impossible for anyone watching Netanyahu’s story not to hear the ominous drumbeats currently percussing around the world. The U.S. economy still teeters on a cliff. A nuclear Iran is threatening to erase Israel from the map. Netanyahu’s brother has warned in response: “Time to resolve this issue peacefully is running out.”

The idea that we live in a safe world is becoming more and more absurd by the day. We hope for the best, and yet we do nothing.

Who’s missing the signs in 2012? That’s up to individual playgoers, Netanyahu said. When “A Happy End” was performed in Israel, he said, “two of the actors were thinking the danger was from the leader of a certain right-wing party … and it’s not my brother.” To Americans, it might be the economy fully collapsing. To Netanyahu, there is no question. “In Israel, the danger is the Iranian bomb,” he said. “Are you going to wait until they have a bomb or are you going to bomb them and take the chance that you might not succeed? That is an unbelievably hard decision to make. Thank God it has to be made not by me. It has to be made by other people.”

Meaning his brother.

 

It can be intimidating to meet a Netanyahu. Especially when you are an actor who is asked to audition long-distance via Skype. And he will be your scene partner. Oh, and he’s playing your female lover.

“That was my first conversation with the brother of a world leader,” joked “A Happy End” actor James O’Hagan-Murphy, who plays a man having an extramarital affair with the wife of a celebrated German atomic physicist in “A Happy End,” opening Sept. 1 at the Buntport Theater in Denver. But Netanyahu made him feel at ease.

“He’s very down to earth and has a great sense of humor,” O’Hagan-Murphy said. “The other night we discussed ‘Angels in America.’ He wasn’t familiar with the plot, and I described my character as a closeted, married gay Mormon lawyer. He replied, ‘Oh, and then he runs for president against Obama?’ ”

Netanyahu says he lives a surprisingly ordinary life divided between Israel and the United States, where he is a radiologist when he wants to be, and a playwright when he needs to be.

Netanyahu spent his final year of high school here and graduated from Denver South while his father was a history professor at Denver University. “I had spent the previous two years on my own in Israel, but for my final year of high school, I decided to be with my parents,” he said.

Being the brother of Benjamin Netanyahu, who was Israel’s prime minister from 1996-99 and again starting in 2009, “strangely doesn’t affect me very much,” he said. “It might affect me more as an artist in terms of whether people want to read what I have written or not because of who I am.”

Acclaimed Czech actress Zuzana Stivinova stars as an avid consumer of Berlin’s rich cultural life in “A Happy End.”

He submitted “A Happy End” to a major theater company in Tel Aviv anonymously. “They accepted it without knowing who wrote it,” he said, “and to their credit, when they found out who did, they went ahead and staged it.”

Unlike his brother, Iddo is listed in the Israeli phone book, and he takes a phone call or two each month from random people complaining or wanting certain things. He spends time with his brother, he said, “but, look: He’s basically a prisoner with bodyguards,” and he has been ever since the 1995 assassination of Benjamin’s predecessor, Yitzhak Rabin.

“Every year it becomes worse and worse. Obviously you can’t go out on the town. So we sit, and we talk … and that’s about it.”

There was one other Netanyahu brother … Yonatan, or Yoni. He was the eldest son of Zila and Benzion Netanyahu, who was a prominent Israeli historian and taught at Cornell University, where Iddo and Benjamin attended. Yoni was a celebrated poet and soldier who died a national hero during Operation Entebbe, the 1976 counter-hostage rescue mission that freed more than 100 Israeli and Jewish passengers of an Air France flight overtaken by a Palestinian terrorist group.

Yoni (Jonathan) led the 29-man assault on the terminal where the hostages were being held, and he was the only Israeli soldier killed in action.

Military service is compulsory in Israel, and the Netanyahus were no exceptions. Benjamin fought on the front lines in the Yom Kippur War. Iddo left Cornell to fight in the same war in 1973. He was a member of a special commando unit that was dispatched to rescue a group of paratroopers who became stranded on a high, snowy mountain peak on what is now the border between Syria and Israel.

“We knew how to navigate in the snow, and we knew the terrain, so we were sent to rescue them,” Netanyahu said. “But believe it or not, on the way, one of us froze to death.” Netanyahu’s first short story was a cathartic attempt to come to grips with that trauma.

His first book was an attempt to answer lingering, troubling questions about brother Yoni’s death at Entebbe. Yoni, 30, already had become a local legend because of a book of poems and personal letters he had written late at night by candlelight while serving in the military. Author Herman Wouk (“War and Remembrance”) called Yoni’s writings “one of the great documents of our time.” Yoni’s funeral was televised, sealing his eternal place as a national symbol of Israel.

According to the official account of the operation, Yoni was accidentally shot by an airport sniper. “That was based on the testimony that a single officer gave, and it was pure fiction,” Netanyahu said. In 1976, the very idea that either an enemy or friendly bullet could have torn the young heart of one of Israel’s finest sons was simply unacceptable. So a lie was constructed. Ten years later, Iddo started to hear things that did not fit with the official version of events, and he set out to learn the truth. Why?

“Because it’s a philosophical question,” he said. “There is truth, and there is objective truth. I’m not a believer in postmodernism. Bereaved people always want to know the exact truth. They don’t want to hide from it.  When you have a brother that you loved who died, whether for good or for bad, you want to know what happened.”

But is there a difference between wanting to know the truth, and wanting the truth to be known?

“Look, you might find it strange coming from a brother but … it was not a matter of, ‘Is he a hero?’ ‘Is he not a hero?’ I was old enough to understand this famous Americans saying : ‘You can’t beat a dead hero.’ ”

Netanyahu soon discovered that, in the years following Yoni’s death, no other members of the secret unit his brother led that day had talked openly about the raid. And no one from the media, military or government had come asking.

“No one,” he said.

Netanyahu did, setting off an avalanche of new information – and controversy. He published 800 pages of testimonies taken over 10 years that easily disproved the sniper theory. He offers instead full arguments for both enemy and friendly fire. But does it really matter?

“No, that’s not the issue to me,” he said. “The issue to me was documenting what really transpired during the raid.  Being in medical school for six years, you come to appreciate trying to sort out facts from fiction. My goal was to describe the facts as well as you can. Raise conjectures. Did it do me good, this kind of analysis? I think so. I think so.”

 

Playwright and director Ami Dayan, who grew up on a secular kibbutz in Israel and found his way to Boulder pretty much through yoga, admits, “it was odd at first to envision a substantial artistic collaboration” with Iddo Netanyahu, given that Dayan is from the far left of the Israeli political spectrum. “But when we met,” Dayan said, “common tastes and artistic preferences quickly came to the forefront.”

Together they have staged “A Happy End” in Italy, Germany, Tel Aviv, and soon in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan.  In Denver, the play will star acclaimed Czech actress Zuzana Stivínová and veteran Denver actor Kevin Hart.

Netanyahu could have chosen a dozen times and places in history to set his story, but he chose the Holocaust “because everybody in the world knows what their choice should be,” he said. “We are all sitting there in the audience rooting for them to make the choice of leaving Germany — otherwise they will find themselves in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.”

None of us can predict the future, but sometimes the obvious thing should be obvious, and you have to look reality in the face, Netanyahu said.

“But sometimes what is obvious is not so easy to decipher. We really are captives of our beliefs. We have a hard time accepting reality when they clash.”

The married couple in his play are not foreigners. They grew up in Berlin, and they are Jewish. Should they have known better? “A lot of this play has to do with how Jews see their place in society — and how do they want society to look at them?” Netanyahu said.

But he adds flatly,  “A Happy End” is not a story for Jewish audiences alone.

“If I wrote a play that is only for Jewish people, then I failed as a playwright,” Netanyahu said. He believes it is a story for anyone facing an uncertain future.

“The world is in turmoil, and you don’t know where it’s going,” he said. “American power is in decline, and other economic forces are emerging. There are times when you dread to think what will happen. We all like to think that the world is getting better, and we’re advancing. We like to think that the world is a calm place, basically, and we like to think that life, as it is, will last forever. Well, it won’t.

“But you cannot live without hope. You have to live with a certain amount of delusion. And that’s the great paradox of human existence. That’s what I’m showing in the play.”

Benjamin Netanyahu has read “A Happy End,” but he has not seen it in any of its live iterations. “As the prime minister of Israel — no, he can’t attend public performances,” Iddo said. “It’s just not doable.”

Well, he could come and safely see it here in Denver.

“Maybe,” Netanyahu said with a laugh. “Who knows? Maybe he will.”

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Contact John Moore at 303-953-9907 or moore433@comcast.net

———————————————-

“A Happy End”

  • Sept. 1-16 (previews Aug. 30-31)
  • At Buntport Theater, 717 Lipan St., Denver.
  • 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays.
  • Tickets: $25 ($18 Aug. 30-31); seniors and students $15.
  • 720-289-6451 or ahappyend.com

Cast:

  • Zuzana Stivinova
  • Kevin Hart
  • James O’Hagan-Murphy
  • Mary Cates
  • Evan Duggan
  • Heather Taylor